Where Biden would break from Trump on Israel

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THEN-US vice president Joe Biden embraces Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)


One of the cardinal tenets of American government is that there is only one president at a time.

Flowing from this principle is the notion that a sitting president has the right and authority to set and implement American foreign policy all the way up to the day when a new president is sworn into office.

This phrase – “one president at a time” – is ordinarily discussed during that transition period between when US elections are held in early November, and when a new president is sworn into office on January 20.

“The United States has only one government and one president at a time,” president Barack Obama said in 2008 in his first press conference after defeating John McCain in that year’s election. “We cannot be sending a message to the world that there are two different administrations conducting foreign policy. That is not safe for the American people.”

Sixteen years earlier, Bill Clinton said the same thing as he was about to take office, making clear that friends and enemies need to understand that “America has only one president at a time, that America’s foreign policy remains solely in his hands.”

If that is true during the two-and-a-half-month presidential transition period, it is certainly true when a first term president – who might be elected to a second term – has more than 10 months left until his first term formally ends.

This “one president at a time” policy makes perfect sense, since bypassing a sitting president by a president-in-waiting sends mixed messages to America’s partners abroad as to who is in charge, thereby undercutting Washington’s status.

US President Donald Trump’s transition team was sharply criticized in December of 2016 when it reached out to foreign governments to defeat a UN Security Council resolution – backed by the Obama administration – condemning Israel for settlement activity.

But now the shoe is very much on the other foot.

Now Trump’s “Deal of the Century” has green-lighted Israel’s extension of its sovereignty to some 30% of the West Bank in return for a commitment to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state under certain conditions on the rest of the territory, while presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden – who may or may not win in November – is sending messages to Israel that it ought not annex.

In other words, Biden’s team and other high-profile Democrats are signaling Israel not to do what Trump’s plan considers acceptable, a highly unusual situation surely to be raised when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives here next week for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz.

Biden has made no secret of his opposition to the Trump plan, tweeting after it was rolled out in January that “a peace plan requires two sides to come together. This is a political stunt that could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more.”

And in a recorded message to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in March, he said Israel “has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity.”

Trump’s plan represents a sharp break from the peace process of the last 25 years, a process some of Biden’s close foreign policy advisers have been associated with, and whose formulas the former vice president continues to espouse.

“A priority now for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace should be resuming our dialogue with the Palestinians and pressing Israel not to take actions that make a two-state solution impossible,” he said on Tuesday.

In comments made throughout the campaign, he has pledged allegiance to the two-state solution, though he has failed to spell out in any meaningful manner how his course of action to reach that goal would be any different from the course of action that failed up until now.

WHILE BIDEN has made clear he wants to discard the “Deal of the Century,” how about other Israel-related policies? Would he reverse those policies as well?

On at least one very significant issue – the US Embassy move to Jerusalem – he has made clear that he would not change the Trump administration policy, even though he thinks that the way it was carried out was flawed.

During a fundraising event this week, Biden said the embassy move “shouldn’t have happened in the context as it did, it should happen in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve an important concession for peace in the process.” In short, he feels Israel should have been forced to give up something in return.

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He said that moving the embassy as Trump did was “shortsighted” and “frivolous,” but added that “now that it is done,” he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.

Which is no trifling matter, and could have implications on decisions of other countries, some of whom are waiting to see whether the embassy remains in the capital after the November election before deciding if they should relocate as well.

Although Biden said he would not touch the embassy, he did say that he would reopen the US Consulate in east Jerusalem “to engage the Palestinians,” something that would reverse the Trump administration policy in 2018 of closing what for decades was essentially a “de facto” US embassy to the Palestinians.

This move, touted by Pompeo at the time as an efficiency measure, was widely seen as a downgrade for the Palestinians. Rather than have an independent office focused solely on the West Bank and Gaza, this was folded into the US Embassy’s responsibilities as a Palestinian Affairs Unit, accountable to US Ambassador David Friedman – a man often vilified by the Palestinian Authority.

The closure of the consulate was just one move taken by the Trump administration viewed as downgrading relations with the Palestinians, as the PA cut off ties with the administration and bashed its officials in the wake of the embassy move.

Another such step included the closure of the PLO Mission office in Washington in 2018. Trump administration officials said at the time that this was done because the office was meant to facilitate peace efforts that the Palestinians were boycotting, and because the PA had initiated action against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Biden pledged to reverse the PLO office closure, saying on Tuesday that in addition to reopening the US Consulate in east Jerusalem, he would also find a way to reopen the PLO’s mission, as well as “resume the decades-long economic and security assistance efforts to the Palestinians that the Trump administration stopped.”

In a response to questions The New York Times posed to all the Democratic presidential candidates in December, Biden said that restoring the aid would restore the US’s “credible engagement with both sides to the conflict,” something he thinks reopening the consulate and PLO Mission office will also do.

WHILE BIDEN wants to increase aid to the Palestinians, one area where he made clear he does not want to depart from Trump policy is military assistance to Israel – an idea that his main Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, said should be considered.

In a PBS interview in November, Biden said this is something he would not contemplate, even calling the idea “outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”

“I strongly oppose Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank. I have made that clear to Bibi when I was vice president. I have made it crystal clear to the Israelis. But the idea that we would cut off military aid to an ally, our only true, true ally in the entire region, is absolutely preposterous. It’s just beyond my comprehension anyone would do that.”

That being said, Biden said during a debate in December that the US has to “put pressure constantly” on Israel to move toward a two-state solution. What he has not made clear is what form that pressure might take.

One likely form is in a change of tone. One of the starkest breaks the Trump administration made from the Obama administration regarding Israel was that it fundamentally changed the tone of discourse coming from Washington. Gone were the days when the administration hoped to gain points by showing “daylight” with Israel. With Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington – and there have been some, specifically over China, the Kurds, and US policy in Syria – have been kept private.

The tone of a Biden White House, however, would likely revert, to a certain degree, to what it was under Obama, partly because many of his foreign policy advisers would likely be Obama administration alumni. As he said to the American Jewish Committee in 2019, “We also have to tell each other the truth, and that includes offering criticism on policies that are counterproductive to peace.”

This truth-telling will include statements that have been absent during the Trump administration: what Israel needs to do to remain true to itself. As Biden said to AIPAC in March, threats of annexation and settlement activity “are taking Israel further from its democratic values.”

The biggest break from Trump-era foreign policy, however, will certainly be over Iran. Biden has made clear that he is opposed to the “maximum pressure” policy on Iran of the Trump administration, and that if Iran moves back into compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “a Biden administration would reenter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear restraints.”

He termed Trump’s withdrawal from the deal a “self-defeating” move that has enabled Iran to move forward on its nuclear program. He stands squarely behind the deal which cast such a heavy pall over Israel-US relations under Obama.

In a foreign policy speech last year at the City University of New York, he said, “The historic Iran nuclear deal we negotiated blocked Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, with inspectors on the ground – international inspectors confirming that the agreement was being kept. Yet Trump cast it aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program, become more provocative, and raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region.”

Israel, at least Israel under Netanyahu, who is set to be prime minister at least for the next 18 months, begs to differ, and that disagreement, if Biden takes over the White House, would once again put Jerusalem and Washington on a rough and rocky road.

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